TRIPOLI: A rogue ex-Libyan general resumed air strikes on jihadists in the city of Benghazi on Wednesday, while gunmen attacked an interior ministry team in Tripoli tasked with protecting the outgoing government.
Amid the ever-worsening insecurity in the North African country, Washington urged US citizens there to leave “immediately” and was even readying a possible evacuation of its embassy. Forces loyal to former general Khalifa Haftar carried out an air raid on a jihadist camp on the outskirts of Benghazi, cradle of the 2011 uprising that ousted long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi, ex-rebels told AFP. “A warplane carried out raids on a camp of the ‘February 17 Martyrs Brigades,’ hitting it with two missiles,” said Ahmed al-Jazaoui, without reporting casualties. Haftar, who returned to Libya from American exile to join the uprising against Gaddafi, launched a deadly anti-jihadist campaign in Benghazi on May 16 when warplanes also bombed February 17 positions. Subsequent fighting killed at least 79 people.
The powerful brigade is made up of Islamist ex-rebels, including radicals, and is suspected of links with Ansar Al-Sharia, a group classified as a terrorist group by Washington. On the political front, the cabinet office condemned an attack late Tuesday on an interior ministry force in charge of protecting the government, in which there were no casualties. The incident in Tripoli was the work of “outlaws,” said the government of outgoing premier Abdullah al-Thani, who resigned last month and is to hand over to his contested successor, Islamist-backed businessman Ahmed Miitig.
Witnesses said a pro-Islamist militia was behind the raid on the interior ministry unit, which opposes the nomination of Miitig, himself targeted in an attack hours earlier. The team, which the outgoing administration had called in for protection only hours earlier, was evicted from the cabinet offices. Libya’s interim General National Congress passed a vote of confidence in a Miitig-led government, which critics have charged was “illegally elected” and imposed by Islamists. On Tuesday, gunmen attacked the family home of Miitig, who was elected this month in a chaotic GNC vote, after Thani resigned following what he said was an attack on him and his family. The premier and his family were in the Tripoli house at the time but escaped unharmed.
Amid the political and security turmoil in Libya three years after the NATO-backed revolution, the US State Department called on Americans to leave the country immediately. “Due to security concerns, the Department of State has limited staffing at Embassy Tripoli and is only able to offer very limited emergency services to US citizens in Libya,” a travel warning said. “US citizens currently in Libya should exercise extreme caution and depart immediately.” The United States is deploying an amphibious assault ship with about 1,000 marines off the coast of Libya in case the embassy needs to be evacuated.
The precautions come amid persistent controversy over a September 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi in which Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed. Since Gaddafi’s death, Libya has been dogged by power struggles among rival former rebel militias and is awash with arms. Successive governments have failed to control the myriad militias that have carved out fiefdoms across the country, and Miitig is Libya’s fifth post-Gaddafi premier. He is due to lead a transition until fresh parliamentary elections are held on June 25.
Miitig assumed office to already mounting opposition and with Haftar gathering support for his deadly offensive against jihadists. Near daily attacks blamed on jihadists have targeted security forces in lawless Benghazi, and several military units have thrown their weight behind Haftar. The GNC has accused Haftar of launching a coup but he said the people had given him a “mandate” to crush jihadists after thousands rallied in his support in Benghazi and Tripoli last Friday.
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